Every year around this time I hear the same well-worn phrase. “The state budget is about priorities.” This statement is so familiar that it has lost its impact, maybe even its meaning, for those who perform the annual budget dance. Priorities is not a word that evokes urgency or a sense of shared destiny. It feels neutral from over-use.
But the concept of priorities is actually central to basic American values like fairness, community, and opportunity. Priorities really means fairness – it means that we can’t let the investment of our state’s resources get skewed to disproportionately benefit the powerful. Priorities really means community – it means that state investments must respond to urgent needs that are hurting our neighborhoods and our neighbors. Priorities really means opportunity – it means that the state needs to partner with its greatest resource, its people, to make sure that everyone has a chance to more than just survive. Only that way can we all thrive together.
As the Executive Director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey, I see the needs side of this equation every day. I see that poverty is rising in New Jersey while the rest of the nation is recovering. I see that desperately needed programs are getting squeezed every year to do more with less. I see an economy that is not bouncing back like our neighboring states, and I see how that hurts us all. When I look at the state budget, I also see misplaced priorities that have funneled billions for unprecedented and expensive corporate tax subsidies while commitments to residents, homeowners, community providers, and our most vulnerable residents are broken.
But the good news is that we can change course. Our state leaders make decisions each Spring about what resources the state needs and how to invest them. These decisions are not easy, but neither are they a shot in the dark with no light of evidence to guide them. We know a lot about what the budget should do.
On one hand, we know the consequences of underinvestment that has weakened our state. We know that flat-funding and disinvestment in vital programs means not only desperate sacrifices for hundreds of thousands of residents who are living in poverty. It also means the loss of opportunity to funnel money back into the local economy, with consequences for everyone. On the other hand, we know what programs are effective in meeting the needs of our people: proven programs that address basic needs like homes people can afford, consistent access to nutritious food, and resources that empower people to meet their own needs.
Over then next seven weeks members of the Anti-Poverty Network will be offering specific and detailed analysis of these investments, as well as the problems in current state budget trends. We will be presenting these perspectives as variations on a single theme: "Put the money where it should be. We invite you to explore the information and perspectives we have to offer about the priorities the state budget should reflect. And we hope you will join the conversation. After all, the state’s budget really should reflect the priorities of its people. It should reflect priorities that put the money where it should be.
by Serena Rice, Executive Director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey